Tim Russert is NBC News' Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press.  Each week he'll offer MSNBC.com's readers his insight and analysis into questions about politics past, present and future.

MSNBC:  Polls, polls, polls.  Tim, who do we believe?  Respected pollster say the presidential race is anywhere from neck and neck to a 13-point lead for Republican incumbent President George W. Bush over Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

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Tim Russert:  There have been ten national polls in the past three weeks.  They all show one thing – George W. Bush is ahead.  Now, you talk to the campaigns privately, they’ll tell you they believe President Bush is ahead five to six points nationally and he’s pulling ahead in the battleground states.  The momentum is with the president.  There’s no doubt about it.  John Kerry has a lot of work to do.

MSNBC:  Is that what’s provoked John Kerry’s recent shift in campaign tactics?

Russert: Yes.  As recently as two weeks ago, John Kerry’s advisors were saying they didn’t think they could focus on Iraq as an issue.  That’s all changed as the situation in Iraq deteriorates.  You’ve seen Sen. Kerry really trying to grab onto that issue and use it as a vehicle to talk about change, some of the economic problems on the domestic side and tie them all to the cost of the war in Iraq.

MSNBC:  What do you make of United States Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage accusing the Iraqi insurgents of trying to influence the election against President Bush, saying, “It's quite obvious that they would like to raise to costs to President Bush. I think this is their cynical effort to do that and to somehow influence our elections”

Russert:  There’s no doubt that people are deeply concerned.  Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-NE, publicly said the war was not going well.  Thursday, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan called the war “illegal”.  Reports in the paper Friday say in July the president was briefed on really no good options.

Yet, Republicans believe that when the topic is terrorism or Iraq or National Security, in the end, the public feels more comfortable with George W. Bush as commander in chief.  John Kerry has to change that equation.  He’s now decided, very clearly to use the war in Iraq as a way to do just that.

MSNBC:  There are only 45 days until Election Day.  Is that enough time for John Kerry to make that turnaround?

Russert:  It’s uphill.  There’s no doubt about it.  But the presidential debate on September 30th, in Coral Gables, Florida will give John Kerry a real chance to talk to the country in clear, understandable terms.  It’s not enough to say, “George W. Bush is wrong.”  He has to say what he will do.

Obviously John Kerry is frustrated.  He’s saying, “Well, people should ask the president what he will do.”  And those questions should be asked.  But John Kerry has to say “George Bush has not done it right and I will and this is what I will do.”

MSNBC:  It seems the campaign focuses have been on a small number of voters – the “undecideds” – but in the six-plus weeks between now and the election, that something could change the minds of the “Decideds”?

Russert:  There’s some soft support.  There’s no doubt about it.  Undecides are probably around six to seven percent, but if you add in the voters who could switch, it probably goes up as high as 15% -- and they’re particularly women.

It’s quite interesting.  If you look at women, when they gravitate to Kerry, the race gets very close.  When the go back to Bush, the margin is quite large.

After the Republican convention, women were saying, “I care about security. I worry about terrorism.  I want to protect my children.”

If John Kerry can change their thought processes, say, “The war is not going well, Iraq is a quagmire and disaster and the economy is not going well,” he has one hope… and that’s to get women back on his side and create a gender gap – which is his only hope for victory.

MSNBC:  How will all this relate to Sunday’s Meet the Press?

Russert:  It will be a metaphor for the presidential race.  The most important Senate race in the country – the most watched – is South Dakota.  Democratic leader Tom Daschle is being challenged by former Republican congressman John Thune.  They will debate on Meet the Press, about Iraq, about the economy.  The Bush White House has invested an awful lot in toppling Tom Daschle.  So, this Sunday, Daschle versus Thune, on Meet the Press.


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